Trial By Combat: Thai Prison Boxing

Broadsight July

By Maria Lynn Ehren


Some argue that people cannot change. However, new studies may have given promising hope that this issue can be answered after all. Before getting into the details, looking into the topic of Thai prison life and its new program that the department of corrections installed is a fascinating insight.

Since the 18th century Thailand’s prisoners have been able to literally fight for their freedom. In 2013 Prison fights, a charity against drug abuse, introduced the opportunity for foreigners to join the prison Muay Thai scene. Muay Thai, also known as the ‘art of 8 legs’, has long been a well-respected sport in Thailand.

Recently, this opportunity to fight in prison has become extremely popular to foreigners and Thais alike. The aim of the program is for prisoners to engage in good behavior, and only those who are willing to stop using drugs are allowed to join this rehabilitation program. Inmates are awarded a sum of money as a reward after winning, but also gain the chance to have their sentence length reduced. Furthermore, it is said that without a clean track record in prison this opporunity would be rejected.

In hindsight, this program seems to have a conflicted aim; convicted felons, serving time for a crime from theft to murder, use their fists to gain their freedom. Using science to justify the sport, here’s why Muay Thai may be, if anything, a beginning to a progressive way of life in Thai prisons.

Normal Prison Life

Prisons in Thailand are infamous for their unsanitary conditions and overcrowded cells.

Prisoners are not given a bed or mattress, while being cramped into a cell with dozens of other inmates. The main reasons for overcrowding according the Ministry of Justice of Thailand’s report from 2003, are:

1. Increased numbers of drug offenders,
2. Incarceration of inmates with alleged offenses(approximately 30% of inmates are awaiting the Ministry of Justice of Thailand’s judgement).
3. And the common use of imprisonment in the criminal justice system.

This raises another issue that inmates that are potentially innocent are put in with dangerous convicts due to the lack of available facilities, and they risk waiting years until their appeals may be heard.

Our Brain

Despite the noise in the nature versus nurture debate, there are a number of prisoners with serious behavioral problems. Psychopathy is describes as a disorder where diminished empathy and antisocial behav ior are present. This type of inmate can be seen as more dangerous than the rest. Regardless of whether or not an inmate is a psychopath, getting into prison involves some sort of social wrongdoing. Even so that over 16% of inmates are locked up more than once; some even more than five times (Thaiprison statistics 2008).

If the aim of prisons is to protect those on the outside, prisons must ensure that when an inmate has done their time, they have no incentive to commit any further ‘societal wrongdoing’ to be incarcerated again. The question that society should then consider: are these inmates just there to serve their time, or should they receive some form of rehabilitation that will enable them to become a functioning member of society? According to a study by Humeau et al, “brain activity in the amygdala underlies both our ability to empathize and our ability to experience fearful emotions”. Furthermore, the age-olbelief that brain development halts when adulthood is reached is no longer the case. The growth in the brain and increase in neurons, also known as neurogenesis, is thought to improve the ability of the amygdala to respond to stressful situations.

The crucial role of the amygdala lies in the processing of emotions. However, as stress inhibits neurogenesis, a setting such as a prison where one can barely lie on his back to sleep let alone must fight for food, the likelihood of any brain development is scarce. Interestingly, compassion training has shown signs of increasing the activity in the amygdala for those who are able to bypass a certain threshold. In animal studies, evidence provides that neurogenesis is enabled by living in “an enriched environment, and also by exercise”. How is this relevant to humans? As it is likely that the human brain would work the same way, it is promising that the “mammalian brain is capable of profound change throughout life”, and therefore significant to the argument of weather or not people can change.

Is there is a path back from crime? With further research on adult brains, if neurogenesis occurs, inmates can learn to empathize. With the correct form of rehabilitation, which includes counseling of the psyche and physical body, one may be able to leave the prison walls behind. Muay Thai is a step in the right direction. However, one may ask, who are the teachers to these inmates and do they themselves possess the right qualities of being a principled teacher? Nevertheless, the Muay Thai program presents the chance for inmates to live a different life in Thailand’s prisons, with the hopes of improving physically and mentally. Muay Thai supports the research into growing the capacity of the brain to potentially expand its sense of empathy. However its reach is only to the physically capable and therefore limits those who cannot fight. If we hope to achieve significant change in the behavior of prisoners, similar programs that are inclusive of all prisoners are needed.


Photos from Time Magazine

Published on July 1st, 2014

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